IF THE NAMES BLACK REINDEER, ARTHRITIS KID AND DEATH OF THE NEIGHBOURHOOD DON’T MEAN ANYTHING TO YOU, BABYBIRD SURELY WILL… THE INESCAPABLE HIT YOU’RE GORGEOUS SPREAD ITSELF ACROSS 1996 LIKE THE MODEL’S LEGS ON A CAR BONNET OF WHICH IT SPOKE. THERE WAS ACTUALLY, OF COURSE, ALWAYS FAR MORE TO BABYBIRD THAN JUST THAT ONE HUGE SINGLE.
Opinionated, clever and funny, there was also always much more to interviews with frontman Stephen Jones than explanations of how there was more to Babybird than an omnipresent single…
The very definition of Ten Hit Wonders, Babybird also spread wings in the UK singles chart with, amongst others, the sinister piano tumbles of BAD OLD MAN, IF YOU’LL BE MINE’s rhythmic skittering over U2 stadium melody, BACK TOGETHER’s epic pleas and devastating fractures, and the precise power-pop of the self-deprecating GOODNIGHT. Jones’ knack for subverting beautiful melodies with wry observation or dark comedy – YOU’RE GORGEOUS itself is not quite what its chorus suggests – or for caging profound sadness (DEAD BIRD SINGS) ensured that his first releases (five limited edition cycle of life themed ‘lo-fi’ albums released over nine months, from mid-1995) quickly became sought-after cult classics. Jones then framed a full band around this collection of bedsit-proportioned songs for 1996’s well appointed UGLY BEAUTIFUL, cherry-picking the best moments so far and rebuilding them from the foundations up – and at arena scale. The hook-heavy album flew to number three and also spawned Top 40 singles CORNERSHOP and CANDY GIRL. Babybird releases since have included the albums THERE’S SOMETHING GOING ON (1998), BUGGED (2000) and BETWEEN MY EARS THERE IS NOTHING BUT MUSIC (2006). 2010’s EX-MANIAC and THE PLEASURES OF SELF-DESTRUCTION (2011) both feature Johnny Depp on guitar. Hugely prolific, music seems to tumble out of Jones effortlessly and since his ‘on a record label’ days he has reconnected with his DIY roots by issuing dozens of albums through his Bandcamp page in fairly rapid succession. Later this week he releases his ‘first album proper’ in several years – PHOTOSYNTHESIS, through new label RW/FF (pre-order link further down the page)… In this new interview, Stephen Jones talks to The Mouth Magazine about the album, and reflects on his body of work. He also speaks about his heart attack and recovery from it...
SINCE WE LAST SPOKE, IN EARLY 2013, YOU’VE RELEASED AROUND A HUNDRED ALBUMS (THROUGH YOUR BANDCAMP AND SOME ON MAIL ORDER CD)… TO RELEASE SO MUCH MUSIC LIKE THAT, YOU MUST BE CHAINED TO YOUR KEYBOARD AND STUDIO? SO, DO YOU RECORD AT HOME, AND IS CREATING MUSIC HOW YOU ‘FILL YOUR TIME’..?
Yes, not much has changed. I’m still in a small room writing – as I was on the dole over twenty-seven years ago. This time I’m in the family box room. Writing music is done in your head, so size of space isn’t important. I’m not sure how so much is written as I’m quite lazy and not writing 24 hours a day. I just work fast and efficiently – a technique you learn early if you were brought up writing songs on four track cassette machines. makes you not elaborate or get caught up finding the correct drumstick sound, like Dire Straits.
I’D IMAGINE, BECAUSE OF THE QUANTITY OF NEW MUSIC, A LOT OF IT IS ‘FIRST TAKE’ STUFF, OR IMPROVISED… SO, HOW DO YOU KNOW WHEN SOMETHING IS PERFECTLY COOKED? HOW DO YOU KNOW WHEN IT’S TIME TO SERVE IT UP??
When I hear the microwave ping. the music side is quick and mostly one take, as I loop most stuff. I’m not interested in playing through a whole song, beginning to end when you can cut and paste and loop – except for the singing, which of course is the non-mechanical technical part. Often I sing goobledygook, take after take, to get a lyrical idea. I was brought up on punk and Joy Division, so perfection is of no interest (even though those types of music are perfection to me). Different types of perfect, like endless ‘proper studio / find the right acoustic’ shit. Making the UGLY BEAUTIFUL album was soooo boring. That’s why I work alone mostly. No interference – no irritating little perfection prodders .
CREATIVELY, WHAT DO YOU GET OUT OF YOUR WORK? RELEASE? REDEMPTION? OR IS IT ‘JUST’ A PURGE…. STOP THE CREATIVE NAGGING IN YOUR HEAD?!
I genuinely like it. The downsides are ears fucking up, sitting in a chair too long… and getting heart attacks is annoying. But sitting there playing or singing is like meditation. Your head is clear and nothing else is there – just music. Brilliant… Also, I can’t do anything else, and luckily YOU’RE GORGEOUS and THE F-WORD etc made it possible financially to pay bills and continue ‘not having a proper job’.
WHAT IS YOUR ‘SET UP’ AT HOME – ATTIC STUDIO SORT OF THING? OR IS THE HOUSE DOMINATED BY YOUR MUSIC STUFF?
No, it’s just in my room. The only spill out into the family space is boxes of old and new Bandcamp projects – CD cases, charms, sharpies… And there’s guitars and old Babybird merch in the garage. Record company shit I haven’t binned, like tacky rubber ducks and mirrors from Ugly Beautiful time… Basically my laptop is smaller than the cassette 4-track I started on. Just as simple, but faster. No rewinding, less breakages or tape jam. My greatest fear is my old (over ten years old) black Powerbook being nicked or just stopping working. I’d probably end it all if anything happened to that.
IN THE RECENT PAST YOU HAD A HEART SCARE… WITHOUT WISHING TO SEEM VOYEURISTIC, WHAT HAPPENED?
Sat in a chair… Alcohol probably – though you’re never told that’s definitely the factor… Bbut more likely lack of exercise – which I do now as religiously as an atheist can. I had pain, which I thought was stitch for over a year, but it got gradually worse. The worst of the pain was happening when I was taxiing my daughter to her GCSEs, and pretending I was okay… Pain in the throat and jaw… and then when I was shopping in the shithole that is Stockport, I just couldn’t walk back to the car. It was time for A&E. Even then I was in denial – and the scariest part, when the penny drops, is the doctor saying the words “you’ve had a minor heart attack”. It all happens very fast. Into surgery. Two stents (little balloons that are inserted into your blocked arteries to open them up) are pushed up through your arm and into your heart. Quite a basic procedure apparently. Then recover for a few days, and out of hospital. That’s when it sinks in again – and I got very depressed for a month and a half, drinking just water, losing a stone and a half. During that time I was on beta blockers that make you dizzy, and I blacked out and fell onto my face. Massive fat lip, possible broken hand. Back in hospital then, having my hand put in a cast, but finding out a few weeks later it wasn’t broken… So all kinds of up-and-down madness.
OBVIOUSLY THAT WAS ALL DIFFICULT AND WORRYING, BUT HAS IT AFFECTED YOUR OUTLOOK ON THE WORK YOU DO, OR THE WAY YOU WORK??
Bob Mortimer has been a big Babybird fan and has used music, and he’d had a heart thing. So he introduced me to Paul Whitehouse who had stents also, so we formed this little stent club. Paul is wonderful and checked up on me every other day. He made sure I went to the gym. So all that encouragement from him and my family got me back to work – not sitting too long at a computer, taking breaks, writing very fucking good new music, ha ha… Even touring again at my own pace. My attitude to life is a weird mix and I write about it in songs all the time – SONG FOR THE FUNCTIONING ALCOHOLIC or BAD OLD MAN etc… dealing with the fact that there are no answers to life – it’s fucking hard… But you find and appreciate moments. Try to feel lucky. Don’t complain, because life is harder for others. To illustrate the bad and good, my consultant a year after my doo dah, said my heart was ‘perfect’ and better than before, which on the one hand is great, but on the other again you think you’re infallible… and bad habits creep up on you. The fuckers.
HARKING BACK TO ‘THOSE DAYS’… THE LO-FI ALBUMS CAME ABOUT BECAUSE OF YOUR CONNECTIONS IN SHEFFIELD, GRAHAM WRENCH AND ALL THAT… BUT BEYOND THOSE, DID YOU HAVE A ‘PLAN’..? OR ACTUALLY EVEN A ‘DESIRE’..? WOULD YOU HAVE BEEN CONTENT TO JUST PUT THOSE FIVE ALBUMS OUT AND THAT’S YOUR STATEMENT? OR WERE YOU ALWAYS ‘DRIVEN’, AS A MUSICIAN??
I’ve never had a plan. Things are always instigated by people I know. Beyond working hard at making the music, I’m not a great manager of myself. I need someone to kick me up the arse – like Ben Scott from the RW/FF label has done with the PHOTOSYNTHESIS album. Wonderful man. And Tim Bailey, who got me touring. The five album lo-fi series really was people at the Leadmill, where Graham worked, nicking the cassettes and just saying these need to be heard. We had two years of record company rejection but that was Graham and partner Dave Taylor who didn’t give up. And the band, of course, who got me the deal.
THERE WAS POIGNANCY IN THERE (DEAD BIRD SINGS), BLACK HUMOUR (COPPER FEEL) AND SOCIAL COMMENT (CORNERSHOP)… BUT THERE WAS ALSO REAL BLEAKNESS. WAS THAT THE SONICS, OR THE CIRCUMSTANCES… OR ARE YOU GENERALLY BLEAK-MINDED?
Music should never be bleak… Leave that to Slipknot. That’s depressing. I think it’s just that my interpretation of things I like is different. The majority public like Ed Sheeran or MRS BROWN’S BOYS… whereas I like David Lynch and Joy Division – but I don’t see it as ‘bleak’. I have always seen it as absolutely uplifting. Melancholy doesn’t depress! It should make you feel brilliant. Olafur Arnalds or Hammock for me are highly emotional and take me somewhere else – or Public Enemy… People might say that lyrical content is bleak, but its not – its uplifting. It’s odd, because if anything the lo-fi albums are full of stupid little jokes which I now find quite embarrassing.
IN THOSE RECORDS, YOU DEFINITELY HAVE AN ARCH VIEW OF THE WORLD – BUT PERHAPS ALSO A SORT OF ‘RESIGNED’ THING GOING ON – LIKE YOU WERE AMUSED BUT YOU ALSO KNEW EVERYTHING WAS SHIT BEYOND REPAIR… I WON’T SAY YOU WERE SORT OF ‘NIHILISTIC’ OR ‘TORTURED’, ‘COS I NEVER GOT THAT SENSE… BUT LISTENING TO THOSE RECORDS I’VE SOMETIMES WONDERED HOW YOU MANAGED TO ‘CARRY ON’ AND LIVE A ‘NORMAL’ LIFE WITHOUT TEARING DOWN THE WORLD… I GUESS THAT MIGHT ALL BETTER BE ENCAPSULATED BY SAYING THERE WAS MAYBE A SORT OF ‘ANGRY YOUNG MAN’ THING GOING ON?
Yes definitely. I do – every day – look for some meaning to it all. Quite irritating, the mind. Back in Nottingham, at polytechnic before the dole, my best friend was a cousin of George Michael’s and he said “if you are creative you will never be happy”… Quite nihilistic, but I was probably too pissed to believe that sort of shit. But now I know he’s right… The lo-fi songs were written when I was on the dole for five or six years, living in a Nottingham high-rise, with a bloke in the other room who used to beat his girlfriend (which I found out after I went to Sheffield), and then also in another flat with a TV that had a distortion on it like floating green bubbles (no, I wasn’t on acid) and was powered by a 50p meter I used pick the lock of. I was probably young enough to stave off any depression. I’ve never been depressed – just fed-up. Nowadays, though, I wrote to light up days of shines, I do look back with rose tinted glasses, remembering the keyboard I got from an Oxfam to write the happy happy LEMONADE BABY – the first of the lo-fi songs I wrote.
HOW DO YOU VIEW THE WORLD THESE DAYS? ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC, OR ARE YOU (AS MANY OF OUR AGE ARE) SORT OF ‘FLATTENED OUT’ IN EXASPERATION? OR HAVE YOU SORT OF DIS-ENGAGED FROM IT?
I agree with all that. I know its sounds cliche and pretentious – but it’s obvious that nature and countryside are the key to mental wellbeing. But even that I struggle with. I can be walking around the Lake District and after a while I’ll get bored with the view – an awful thing to say! But it’s hard to just stay in that moment of enjoying that moment. So I’d say I’m optimistic when looking forward to things, but a bit critical and dissatisfied when I’m there. I know turning the news off is a good thing. I don’t want to be isolated, but Christ the news don’t half manipulate you into caring…
HAVING SAID ALL THAT ABOUT ‘THE STATE OF THE WORLD’ (BACK THEN AND NOW), I ALSO FELT YOUR WORK WAS OFTEN A KIND OF ‘MICROSCOPE’ THROUGH WHICH ‘SMALLER’ BUT SIGNIFICANT THINGS COULD BE LOOKED AT… YOUR LO-FI WORK PARTICULARLY FELT ‘LOCAL’ (IF THAT DOESN’T SOUND TOO LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN)… ALTHOUGH I DON’T RECALL A SONG OF YOURS WHERE IT IS DIRECTLY MENTIONED I FELT THAT SHEFFIELD REALLY IMBUED ITSELF IN YOUR WORK…
Sheffield certainly shat on Nottingham as a place to get it properly started. The band – or more importantly the friends I found – who wanted to interpret the songs, were the locals. Sheffield is very unique (as are all places). Definitely had a huge influence. I definitely like the microscope thing, which really is about taking the staple cliche of popular music – love and relationships – but shoving a spatula into the petri dish and stirring. Trying to find a different way to talk about or use love in songs. Disturbing love. To try find a way of making it connect differently. Local definitely is there in abundance, with the lo-fi. The reference to the Bury Met on CANDY GIRL and so on… The mentality of signing on the dole in Sheffield is all over that early work. I always use the places where I am – could be LA for EXMANIAC and THE PLEASURES OF SELF-DESTRUCTION Or London on BUGGED…
THROUGH YOUR CATALOGUE OF WORK, THERE ARE LOTS OF INSTRUMENTAL PIECES, BUT WHEN YOU DO ‘SONGWRITE’ THERE ARE WHAT SEEM TO BE REALLY SINCERE MOMENTS AND EMOTIONAL MOMENTS (I’M TALKING ABOUT LYRICALLY)… BUT YOU’VE OFTEN SORT OF PERVERTED THE BEAUTY OF THE MUSIC YOU RELEASE WITH A STRANGE IMAGE OR A ‘DIFFICULT’ TITLE. DO YOU LIKE TO PROVOKE? OR PERHAPS THROW PEOPLE OFF THE SCENT, SOMEHOW?
I try singing on most stuff and when it fails, or the lyrical tune isn’t good enough, it becomes an instrumental. I also like drones in music; where things build up or off a single note. I am definitely not planning to sing on those pieces. Like the stuff released under the names Foetal Sparrow and Arthritis Kid, and so on. I like to provoke thoughts – but not to shock. I’m not sure I gear stuff for people – I just write without an audience… though obviously I know early on if its a catchy song or not.
MY FIRST ENCOUNTER WITH BABYBIRD WAS A GIG AT THE LEADMILL IN SHEFFIELD IN MID-1995 (YOU SUPPORTED JOOLS HOLLAND), AND THE FIRST SONG I CLEARLY REMEMBER IS GOODNIGHT… HOW DID YOU GET FROM THERE TO THE RELEASE OF UGLY BEAUTIFUL AND APPEARING ON, SAY, RICHARD AND JUDY?!
A fun night I remember! It was more propelled by Mark Radcliffe and Lard, and Mark Lamarr. Doing radio sessions for them, etc. They played GOODNIGHT a lot. Even Peel did… UGLY BEAUTIFUL was rushed and contained band songs and some of my old tarted up demos, so it was a bit of a mess. YOU’RE GORGEOUS got the Richard and Judy spot, the Big Breakfast on Channel Four, the juggernaut BBC Radio One roadshows, etc, in full steam. All a big blur…
YOU’VE DESCRIBED THAT PERIOD OF SUCCESS AS ‘MADNESS’… DO YOU MEAN THE AMOUNT OF WORK (PROMO, TV, PRESS ETC), OR DO YOU MEAN COPING WITH THAT AMOUNT OF ATTENTION?
I’ve never put myself forward as a leader so it was unknown territory. I had been in a theatre company before, but that was part of a group without leaders. Of course the band was brilliant – but usually media just want the singer. I lived in Manchester at the time, but got hounded when YOU’RE GORGEOUS exploded and so had to move to London to escape. It was way better there.
AND NOW, TWENTY OR SO YEARS ON, I’D GUESS THE ‘BALANCE’ OF YOUR LIFE IS SO MUCH BETTER FOR YOU… AND THE WAY YOU RELEASE MUSIC SO MUCH HEALTHIER?
Healthier. Yes, I think so… and I have control, as much as that is possible. But in terms of getting it to people, that’s a brick wall sadly. But I had my once around, and second times are hard to find – so I’m realistic about that. But getting it to more people to hear is hugely frustrating. Guess I pay less tax, though…
RELEASING ALL THAT STUFF THROUGH BANDCAMP – FOR SOMEONE WHO APPRECIATES YOUR MUSIC AND ADMIRES YOUR CREATIVITY IT’S BEEN A FANTASTIC RIDE – ALMOST LIKE A CHANCE TO ‘GLIMPSE BEHIND THE CURTAIN’, AS IT WERE…
That’s brilliant. Thank you. Of course it’s too much stuff and confuses newcomers – but just stick a pin anywhere on my Bandcamp and start there. Start anywhere. A lot of it is free…
I’VE BEEN LISTENING TO PHOTOSYNTHESIS FOR A FEW WEEKS, AND THE ‘USUAL MAGIC’ IS VERY MUCH INTACT – BUT THAT’S NO SURPRISE, IN A WAY, AS ALL OF YOUR WORK HAS A DISTINCT ‘MAGIC’… SO BEARING IN MIND THE FREQUENCY AND VARIETY OF YOUR RELEASE SCHEDULE, WHY PARTICULARLY THIS SET OF RECORDINGS FOR A FULL RELEASE (AND ON VINYL ETC)?
Ben at RW/FF did it all. He chose the songs. Some I’d forgotten, as there’s so much material. I can almost sift through the Bandcamp like a stranger to it, sometimes. Like listening to someone else. Ben’s done something I couldn’t and brought it to many other people.
IS THERE SOMETHING ‘IN’ THE PARTICULAR WORK ON PHOTOSYNTHESIS WHICH ELEVATES IT ABOVE THE REST, FOR YOU?
It’s on vinyl is what elevates it. Ben’s thought about it very carefully. It’s like a journey. And because he’s an outside eye it works better than I could have done it.
BEN HAS LONG BEEN A SUPPORTER OF YOUR MUSIC – SO HOW DID THE RELATIONSHIP DEVELOP TO THE POINT WHERE HE’S PUTTING OUT A BABYBIRD RECORD..?..
It happened overnight – though he has been a constant presence on Babybird social media. Then he just did. Brilliant.
DO YOU HAVE ANY PARTICULAR EXPECTATIONS FOR PHOTOSYNTHESIS?
Just to play it on my record player is pleasure enough…
PHOTOSYNTHESIS is available to pre-order from Stephen Jones’ Bandcamp page HERE (along with dozens of other albums and some free downloads).